Call it a reverse Turing test: rather than AI trying to appear indistinguishable from a human, it's a human trying to act like an AI. Trying to fool someone into thinking you're a computer-controlled character isn't a feature of very many games, and that's a damn shame—it can be anything from nail-bitingly tense to downright hilarious, and I love it so much I wish there were more games to do it in.
I'm not entirely sure why I find it so enthralling to pretend to be an NPC. Maybe I've spent so much time around NPCs in games that mimicking their behavior and movements becomes a creative exercise, or maybe it's the act of restraining myself from running at top speed, driving like a lunatic, or bunny-hopping all over the place like players usually do in games. Or maybe the roots go deeper than that.
SpyParty, in development for nearly a decade, arrived in Steam Early Access this past week. It's a 1v1 multiplayer game in which you and another player take turns playing two different roles. During a round, one player is a sniper observing a noisy cocktail party populated by NPCs, and the other is a spy mingling with those NPCs while trying to complete a series of tasks. The sniper wins if they correctly identify the other player and shoot the spy (or if the spy doesn't complete their tasks), and the spy wins if they complete their tasks before the clock runs out without being shot (or if the sniper shoots an innocent NPC). Then the players switch roles.
Playing the sniper in SpyParty is fine, don't get me wrong. But when I'm sniper, all I'm really doing is waiting for my turn to be the spy so I can walk around acting like a computer.
Playing as spy, blending in with AI characters for four minutes while the sniper's laser sight sweeps through the room is nerve-wracking. Did I wait long enough before moving to a new position? Did I wait too long? I just bumped into about four people and changed directions and missed my mark: did the sniper see all that? Do other characters bump into things? Do they stutter-step the way I just did? Should I stutter-step less, or not at all? My god, are my movements so artificial that it's glaringly obvious that I'm not artificial?
There's a lot of tension when the sniper's laser centers on your forehead while you're engaged in a fake conversation with bots. The only thing stronger than the urge to immediately move is the urge to remain perfectly still until the sniper looks elsewhere, and neither of those are wise since you need to act like you don't care that there's a rifle pointed at your head, since none of the other NPCs do.
There's even more intense excitement when you perform one of your tasks like seducing an NPC or contacting an operative while you're being closely watched. Or maybe you're not being watched—the sniper may train their sight in one spot while looking in another direction. You can't really tell when you're being examined, so you have to keep your NPC performance going at all times, and that means acting naturally—technically, acting unnaturally since you're supposed to be an NPC—even when a laser sight is between your eyes.
And there's more than just relief when the sniper's beam swings elsewhere after a long moment of scrutiny. Winning a round as a spy feels amazing: not only is it fun roaming around a fake party filled with fake people, pretending to be fake (I honestly sometimes wish there was no sniper and no clock, so I could just spend an hour mingling with NPCs) but it's a weird and wonderful joy knowing another human being was looking directly at you, maybe a dozen times in the past few minutes, but didn't see you for what you were. You were hiding from a hunter, but hiding in plain sight, a needle in a stack of needles.
The pleasure of acting like an NPC in SpyParty is immense because the other player knows you're there, somewhere. They're deliberately looking for you. But there's another game in which you can pretend to be an NPC and your opponent isn't looking for you: they don't even know they're in a multiplayer game.
I don't play a lot of online games, but when Watch Dogs arrived in 2014 I fell into a headlong obsession with its multiplayer mode Hacking Invasion (a similar mode is in Watch Dogs 2). The objective is to enter another player's game and hack their data (basically, push a button and wait for a timer to run out while avoiding being killed by them) but what's most interesting about it is that when you arrive in this stranger's game, they aren't notified of it. Until you actually begin hacking them, they still think they're playing a singleplayer game. Which means you get to act like an NPC while no one is even targeting you.
When you invade, you first need to get close enough to the other player to hack them. This can sometimes be a challenge if the other player is driving at top speed when you arrive, so you need to catch up to them by also driving like a maniac, then slow down and try to resemble an NPC when the player is close enough to see you. It feels like being Dean Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, racing down the hall but stopping to walk normally when passing classrooms.
Nothing is happening here, students. Everything is normal.
Once the other player is within range, you can start hacking them, but I usually waited because a big part of the fun was the act of observing someone playing without them knowing you're there. In addition to being able to casually walk around or slowly drive like an NPC, there's also a bit of voyeurism, I suppose. It's not like watching someone stream a game on Twitch for an audience, but viewing someone completely oblivious to your presence. You weren't invited and in a lot of ways, it feels like you shouldn't be there at all. There's even something a bit off-putting about it: it feels like a tiny invasion of privacy. (You could, if you wanted, opt-out of invasions.)
Once close to my mark, I liked to approach as carefully as I could, strolling along, just observing. The hacking part of the game was fun, too, as they were notified you were in their game and tried to hunt you down, so a bit like SpyParty at that point. They know someone nearby is a real person—or a fake fake-person—and you couldn't really be hidden in the open for long as close scrutiny would give you away.
But the moments before the hacking, when you can just wander around in someone's game, stroll past them, drive behind them, blend in with the rest of the NPCs, I could happily do that all day.
Hide and peek
The enjoyment of pretending you're an AI may stem from a much more basic concept than mimicking an NPC, something as simple as the act of hiding. Hide and Seek, aka PropHunt, is a mode for Garry's Mod where one team disguises themselves as objects on a map and the other team hunts for them. You're not pretending to be an NPC but a soda can, a plant, a lamp, or a sofa. Hide and Seek, in other words, its hide-and-seek like you played as a kid, but instead of hiding behind a couch, you are the couch.
It's silly, certainly, and there's no real challenge or art to acting like a cardboard box or a traffic cone, except perhaps in where you choose to place yourself. But there is that same sort of thrill you find in SpyParty and Watch Dogs, as a hunter runs close, smashing or shooting objects nearby, and you just wait, wondering if they'll hit you next. They look in your direction and stop in front of you, and you're gripped with that same tension. Have they made me? Will they shoot me? Am I acting enough like a box, or suspiciously too much like a box?
And when they run past, you experience the same feeling, not just of relief but also the joy of having having fooled them. They looked at me, right at me, but they didn't see a human player. To them, I was just another part of the game.